The air was chilly and my ice cream rocky. As I walked my way to the Real Mary King’s Close tour, the buildings on the Royal Mile streets of Edinburgh looked stone-cold. Even the grey sky seemed to hint at the grim tour I’d signed up for. They say Mary King’s Close is one of the most haunted places in Scotland’s capital city, and the setting certainly seemed to suit the rumour so far.
The Scots call streets ‘closes’. Mary King’s Close, though, is no ordinary street. It sits underground, below the Edinburgh City Chambers building. No wonder people fear it’s haunted! But I was reassured when a costumed guide greeted me and the rest of the spook-hungry tourists at the door. Together, we walked down several steps, right down to Edinburgh’s own inferno, perhaps. To add to my anticipation, the path was poorly lit, the ceiling low and no windows in sight.
Alleys led to smaller alleyways with several rooms along them. These rooms were apparently people’s homes in the 17th century–small, windowless, and lacking washrooms. The guide narrated how these homes were the lowest of the seven-storey high tenements and were occupied by the economically backward. Given the unsanitary conditions they lived in, the occupants of the lowest storeys were often the first to fall victim to diseases. After all, the sewage from the city flowed openly on the streets and into the Nor Loch (Northern Lake).
Back then, Mary King’s Close was the closest to this “lake”. So, I wasn’t very surprised to learn that the black plague hit the residents of the close and many of them dropped dead like flies. Leading us from room to room, the guide narrated various stories of the horrors of the plague attack. One story that sent shivers down my spine was that of a Japanese psychic’s supposed encounter with the ghost of a little girl called Annie.
Upon visiting this close in the recent times, the psychic claimed that the little girl’s parents had abandoned her when they found out she had contracted the deadly epidemic. Archaeological research hasn’t found evidence of an Annie who may have lived there once. But many continue to claim feeling the girl’s presence; they even leave dolls in the girl’s room for her–some as a mark of sympathy, some owing to the belief that her ghost misses her doll. The doll pile didn’t creep me out nearly as much as Annie’s story horrified me. Whether or not it’s true, the idea that a sick girl might have been abandoned is terrible. It could easily have been the story of any of the thousands who perished there.
Mary King was a beacon of light in one of the darkest alleys.